Ena would never have approved

The man the tabloids have dubbed the mad axe murderer of Coronation Street pledged yesterday that he was going to stop killing off the TV soap's characters, only to see another long-serving actor resign because of changes to the show.

Brian Park, who on his first day as producer of Coronation Street six months ago cut the wimpy Derek Wilton character from the show, has now seen 10 characters either jump or be pushed from the show.

The latest casualty was actor Bill Waddington, 81, who played the eternally grumpy Percy Sugden. Mr Waddington pleased the tabloids, and probably boosted ratings, yesterday by claiming he was leaving because the show now contained too much sex.

"Hand on heart, there will be no more axings for at least a year," Mr Park said yesterday before Mr Waddington's announcement. "It is difficult to tell people that you are not renewing their contract but it is not personal."

The reason for the butchery, which has also seen the characters Mavis Wilton, Don Brennan and Andy McDonald wiped from the credits, has been ITV'S decision to drag Coronation Street into the 1990s.

In recent months, the show has been level-pegging with its BBC rival EastEnders, but in the long term the show's audience is in decline. It also suffers from an ageing audience - 40 per cent of its regular viewers are over 55 - which is a turn-off for advertisers and means its audience is dying off.

There was also a feeling that the show had been fatally weakened by losing three important characters - barmaids Bet Gilroy and Racquel, and Reg Holdsworth.

Last November, when Coronation Street trailed EastEnders by a million viewers for the first showing and by five million when EastEnders' Sunday omnibus was taken into account, the tabloids used the five million figure to justify a series of "Corrie in decline" stories.

Now that something has been done about that supposed decline, they are branding Mr Park the "assassin of the Street".

"I was brought in to bring the show into the next millennium and to secure our status as number one," Mr Park told the Daily Mirror yesterday, underneath a picture of Freddy Krueger, the murderer from the Nightmare on Elm Street films.

However, he said that there would be a limit to the changes in plot: "Emily Bishop will not be shooting up smack, but the Street has been in stasis for too long."

As well as extra sex, Mr Park has tinkered with the balance between Coronation Street's comedic storylines and its hard drama plots so that there is more drama - only in the early 1990s did Coronation Street move from Granada's light entertainment department to its drama division.

He also plans to copy EastEnders' strategy of milking storylines for longer.

Next month sees the introduction of the first major new family to the street for years - the Battersbys, dubbed the neighbours from hell but who crucially include some more young characters to appeal to younger viewers.

There are also plans to introduce the Street's first Asian family later in the year.